Despite a bloody history, Japan and China are now firm friends, both economically and politically.by Eamonn Fingleton / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
China is now widely seen as the coming superpower. But few even among the west’s China-watchers understand quite how fast this geopolitical freight train is approaching. Moreover, most western observers assume that China’s ambitions are being opposed by its east Asian rival, Japan. In the words of the Economist, Japan is “standing in the way” of China’s superpower ambitions. As the Japanese economy is still more than three times larger than China’s, Japan’s supposed hostility has tended to tranquilise western concerns about the dragon’s rise.
All conventional wisdom to the contrary, however, Japan and China are not enemies. The two east Asian great powers quietly buried the hatchet 25 years ago and, at least as far as top policymakers are concerned, their relations have long been remarkably close and even warm. It was in December 1979 that the Japanese prime minister, Masayoshi Ohira, paid a historic visit to Beijing to set the seal on wide-ranging plans for Sino-Japanese co-operation. What started out as a simple economic partnership has now blossomed into a full-scale alliance, with an increasingly obvious anti-western – and particularly anti-US – agenda.
Japanese policymakers entered this alliance because they recognised earlier than their western counterparts how radically the map of world power was likely to be redrawn in the 21st century. They realised that, thanks to reforms initiated in the 1970s, the Chinese economy was launched on a path of sustainable growth. It required little prescience to see that a rise in China’s military power would follow. As China’s growth has continued to meet and even surpass Japanese expectations, the Japanese have become convinced that the US will come off second best in the rivalry with China for global leadership.
Faced with this realisation, Japanese leaders had a choice. They could obstruct China, sabotaging any hope of reconciliation with their neighbour, or they could mend fences. All the evidence is that they chose the latter, and that since 1979 they have been accommodating, and indeed encouraging, China’s superpower ambitions.
Of course, all this must remain strictly sub rosa. Japanese leaders understand that any acknowledgment of how close Sino-Japanese relations have become would risk a backlash from America. After all, Japan has long presented itself as one of America’s most loyal and devoted allies – and has enjoyed uniquely generous economic privileges as a result.
Yet the fact that Tokyo and Beijing enjoy a special understanding is…